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The career, life, and times of barnstorming Claire

From transforming a derelict barn into a family home, to breaking glass ceilings in the male-dominated world of banking, to performing the work of Gilbert and Sullivan, and streamlining practices and operations here at KM, life has never been dull for Claire Meads. 

Now, as she heads into "retirement", Claire has no intention of slowing down, with plans that include extensive travel, volunteer work, further education, and finishing that barn conversion!

Before saying her farewells to KM Packaging, Claire took some rare timeout to answer a few questions about her life and career.

Please share some insight about yourself.

I'm married with one adult daughter. My husband and I met when our neighbouring single-sex schools came together at the beginning of the 6th form to put on a school play.

I was stage manager, and he was learning about stage lighting and technical theatre. Not much changes – we have been members of a local amateur operatic group for over 30 years, he is head of the technical, and I perform and also plan and co-ordinate the costumes.

We became a couple two years after our first meeting, just before he went off to university for four years, and we got married as soon as he graduated. 

In 1999, with a 6-year-old daughter, we sold up and moved into a caravan on the site of a derelict barn which, over a number of years of very hard work, we transformed into the house we still live in today.

Can you tell us about your career history?

I had a 20-year career with Barclays Bank, starting in a branch in Northampton in 1979. I moved around to progress my career working in six branches and two head office departments. 

I graduated as ACIB (the professional banking qualification - basically a degree in banking) in 1989. My roles within the bank included being part of the peripatetic internal audit team and managing a large corporate legal team in Northampton.

I took voluntary redundancy in 1999 when I was Training Manager for Northamptonshire – the result of centralisation of the banks training programme.

This was followed by a 12-month career break to project manage our house build!

I then worked for seven years in nursery and infant education. That included five years as 1:1 support for a child with Down's Syndrome, during which time I gained a qualification in Speech & Language Development in Children from Northampton University. This role ended when the child I was supporting moved up to the Junior School.

The final career stage began when I joined KM's Customer Service team in November 2007.

What is your current role and responsibilities?

My main responsibility is stock planning and control. I am also part of the BRC Internal Audit team [British Retail Consortium's official assessment of a food manufacturer's adherence to the BRC Global Standard for Food Safety].

In addition, I have been working on the development of a new stock management and reporting system with Jamie Close for the past 18 months. It will be rolled out just as I leave!

What have you gained from working at KM?

Grey hairs!

What were the greatest successes or accomplishments?

In my entire career, it has to be the glass ceilings which I broke in the male-dominated world of Retail Banking in the late 80s early 90s. 

In 1989, I became the first female Internal Auditor in my region (mid-central England), and in 1991 I was one of only a handful of female Corporate Legal Team Managers – both appointments were met with raised eyebrows by some of my male colleagues, which made me even more determined to succeed.

At KM, the way in which the Customer Service team works today is unrecognisable from the one I joined 14 years ago. 

Very soon after I joined, Graham Holding, himself new to the company, initiated a programme to streamline working practices and operations.  I worked on this with the other customer service team members of the time (Amanda Taylor and Sara Athey). 

This project has been the foundation of continued improvement to this day.

What has been your favourite project, and why?

The establishment of the BRC Audit team – I was the sole auditor when we started down the BRC route in 2016. This gave me a real platform to put my own mark on something new within KM.

The success of our audit team is clear to see from the results of all of our external audits – all at least A grade with AA for the past two years.

What were the greatest challenges you faced at work?

Planning for Brexit – three times!  That’s as the person responsible for ensuring that we always have the correct stock to meet our customers' often changing requirements. And with also having a brief of keeping stock levels to a minimum, the extra considerations for Brexit have been a headache!

What advice would you give to others facing similar challenges?

Use a spreadsheet with multiple tabs and many colours! Seriously – make sure that you keep good records of your planning because you won't remember what you did in two months' time.

What has given you the greatest satisfaction?

I have really enjoyed parts of all of the jobs I have done, but the thing which I have found most satisfying is my time spent with the child with Down's Syndrome. The pride that I have in the work I did with him still continues – especially when I see him as an independent 22-year-old around our local town (and he still has a hug to give to me).

What have been the most significant changes?

I feel like dinosaurs saying it – but the major advances around IT have completely changed office work since I started.

Barclays were always a bit behind the times as far as IT was concerned. So, it wasn't until I arrived at KM that I had a desktop computer or emails to deal with. Managing the constant flow of emails was (and continues to be) a real challenge.

How did you balance your career and your personal life?

My husband and I have always had a mutual understanding that there are times when the demands of work will mean that you need to work longer than normal hours, and we support each other through those times.

BUT – once the working day is done, we turn off our phones and computers and concentrate on family life.

How have you evolved as a person during your career?

Differently in the roles I have undertaken. I found out what I was good at in my first roles – planning, organising, and working to targets. 

Also, I worked with a few great managers, and I tried to adopt some of their management practices when my time came to lead a team.

I learned patience when dealing with young children in my time working in schools.

At KM, I was moved into a role which really played to the skills learnt in my earlier career – this allowed my thinking to become more strategic and my planning, organising, and system development skills have been further enhanced in the past few years.

Do you recall any amusing moments at work?

There have been a lot of occasions to laugh in the last 14 years. But the one thing that really sticks in my mind is on one Friday afternoon looking across into the office of Charles Smithson, our MD, from my desk. He had just started to play "The Dying Swan" over his computer speakers. And Charles was in his office chair in full prima ballerina mode – arabesque arms, pirouettes the lot!

What will you most miss about working at KM?

This is where I should say something gushy about my colleagues – but in reality it is Katie Puckle’s cakes! (I will miss colleagues, too – really).

Is there anything you won't miss when you retire?

My alarm going off – I am not a morning person.

What message would you like to give to colleagues?

Always give 100%, but also concentrate on your work/life balance. That is especially difficult at the moment with many of us working at home, but it is so important to your relationships and mental health.

What message would you like to give to customers of KM?

You would never believe how much thought and care everyone at KM gives to providing you with a top-class service and delivering the right product at the right time.

What do you plan to do in your retirement?

I am going to be busy! Top of my list is to travel – there are still three continents which I haven't visited and many countries and experiences to be explored.

Some of our travel plans have to be delayed, given the present circumstances. So, initially, instead of several international trips, my husband and I have a plan to visit many of the islands within the British Isles in 2021.

I will also be doing volunteer work for a UK charity which supports children's education and single mothers in an area of Kenya. I haven't worked out all of the details yet, but it will most likely involve some admin work and fund-raising event planning.

In addition, I have been thinking for a long time about doing a degree, which I wish I’d pursued when I was 18. 

The subject would be Social History from the medieval period. I have a particular interest in how dress and fashion shaped society and played a role in social development, so I plan to do a short course around this topic first, just to make sure my academic brain still works.

And I will take more time to look after myself and my family – first of all working on my fitness. This will include more walking and yoga and starting to row again, and also spending more quality time with my Mum.

Then, last but not least, there's finishing our house – we still have a list of jobs we wanted to do but haven't started yet.

Claire leaves with our very best wishes and thanks for her fantastic contribution and friendship.

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